On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stamping Around the World

Father collected stamps. He put them in a leather valise,
and that was his album. He kept his entire collection in there, stamps still stuck to shreds of envelope paper, used stamps with glueless backs, waiting to be assigned to country pages in an album that he never bought, clusters of mint stamps still clinging to neighbours by their perforated edges, and commemorative envelopes, Queen Elizabeth's coronation, Merdeka day, and some other dates that I don't now remember.

He wasn't a serious collector like his neighbour Wang Nawang, who lived three houses away from us, in the same row that looked into the market, but further down to the shore. Wang Nawang stuck his stamps with hinges, in pages of an album that probably bore the Stanley Gibbons insignia. We often saw him sit by his window, looking into his stamp collection, in a cloak of sweet smoke emanating from his pipe tobacco. There he sat, pondering over Monaco triangles, and Ifni birds with smug and quizzical looks perched on long necks, and exotic goats and native people. Where in the world is Ifni now?

Looking into Father's bag of philately I found the name S.A.Latif,
stamped in blue ink on the back of an envelope that came from Durban, Natal, in South Africa. Latif must have swapped many stamps with Father as he had many Suid-Afrika issues in his bag, but Father had postcards too from lands that stood beyond the further reaches of my imagination, and a medal issued during the coronation of Queen Elizabth II in 1953, and here and there were delightful snippets of life in San Marino and Nyasaland and Ruanda-Urundi, thumb-nailed into postage stamps that carried in them more than a faint glimmer of sunshine in a foreign country. Ruanda-Urundi, a land with people I imagined to be constantly dancing in unfettered joy, what calamity touched it much, much later.

But for all those sounds conjured in vivid mental pictures and the alliterative lure of foreign lands,Father's interest was basically local. His bag was filled with Federated Malay State issues, tigers confined in serrated edges, aroused from jungle slumber; FMS stamps with the BMA overprint, and Trengganu stamps with overprints of Japanese characters and the occupying power's own issues showing a farmer ploughing the Malayan land as rays of the Japanese sun shone behind his field.
When I too started to collect stamps, I wrote to S.A.Latif in Natal asking if he was ready for further swaps, but Father must have given more than he had pages in his album. “Please do not send me any more stamps as I have more than I need from Malaya,” he wrote back, but he also very kindly enclosed some South Africa stamps, and then I heard form him no more. My collection expanded very slowly with occasional replenishments from Father's promiscuous pile, but occasionally I bought stamps from a dealer named Lee Cheng Puan in Duku Road, Singapore. Lee sent us stamps in little booklets from which we picked and then we sent back the rest with cash for the purchase that amounted to no more than a few dollars.

Emboldened by that
I looked to further shores and found one as I was scouring through TitBits, a magazine that Father occasionally brought home from the Chee Seek store in Kampung China. There were snippets in there of human interest stories, laughter from my favourite cartoonist Clew, Charles Atlas in his leopard skin underwear urging you not to have sand kicked in your eyes by beach bullies. And then, in one corner, were the good people from the London company of Broadway Approvals.

Broadway said they sent stamps out on approval, so I wrote to them, and – to my surprise - they did: in a little booklet came Ifni and Monaco and San Marino and Helvetica and more places you could hurry to by turning the pages. They were all sent for your approval, for you to take your pick, and to send back whatever you didn't want to Broadway Approvals plus a postal order for your purchase. I took what I wanted and sold the rest to my classmates, and the whole collection, as I recall, cost $15.00 which was probably about £1 15s 3d in old money.
The world spun on a different axis in those days when trust was truly global. Which trader would think it wise now to send a collection of stamps halfway around the world to a child in primary school? I found a Broadway Approvals advertisement recently that was almost similar to the one I saw in TitBits and was touched by this tagline in their copy, “But please tell your parents you are answering this advertisement.”

Broadway Approvals, I have a confession to make after all these years: my parents didn't know.

*I have done further research into Broadway Approvals. They were in South London, at 50 Denmark Hill. In 1956 they brought the Micromodel Company, a company credited with the origination of cut-out models of historic buildings and castles. The man behind Broadway Approvals was George Santo. Thank you Mr Santo!

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Chinese New Year

To all my Chinese readers, a very happy new year from me and from Pök Téng and Mat Spröng too.

Selamat Tahong Baru!

[Image courtesy of]

Thursday, January 05, 2012

A Book In A Quiet Corner

It has been almost a year now since we launched A Map of Trengganu at RA Fine Arts in a place called Solaris Hartamas.The band Diwangga Sakti played, Andre Goh sang, Jimmy Choo wowed shoe lovers, old friends and new inter-mingled, my sister baked cakes for us - old kuihs and new - and a really, really wonderful time was had by all.

Now the book is still selling well and I want to thank you all.

Yesterday I saw that Foyles of London had a few copies still on their shelves. So if you happen to be in London and would like to read about Trengganu (er, you would like to read that sentence again?) do make your way to Charing Cross. Even if the books are no longer there you'll still enjoy Foyles which, at one time, was the most famous bookshop in the world. Marks & Co (more widely known as 84 Charing Cross Road) made it to the stage, but Foyles fought the war and was both loved and hated for its eccentricities. But it is much better now.
In the second half of my secondary school years, in a school called Victoria Institution (yes, you heard it right, I was once in an institution), our English teacher told us about Foyles, what a big place it was and how he'd spent his days there reading books he couldn't afford to buy. Foyles was - and still is - like that; it leaves you alone amid its chaos and it holds no grudge for your taking your fill of its bibliopolity.

I used to spend hours in its occult and philosophy wing wondering about Aleister Crowley, reading about Greeks in a barrel and many other things too weird and wonderful.

In leaner days the building that housed the wing was sold to Waterstones, and then Waterstones grew slimmer and the shop across the road is now taken over by people who divide its ground floor between respectability and semi-pornography, and its basement entirely for the serious study of the scatological.

It warms the cockles of my heart of course to know that today, the Foyles that gave comfort to my English teacher in his hours of need, that gave me things to read on dozy afternoons, that is visited by many of the great and good of this metropolis, also stocks A Map of Trengganu.

So, if you're tired of London, as Dr Johnson meant to say, do take yourself there and buy the book, or just read it if you please, and place a discreet bookmark in it for you to return to another day.

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